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Exploring the Patuxent: Creating environmental leaders

Group shot at the end of the week

For the past five years, we at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Jug Bay Wetlands Sanctuary and Patuxent River Park have hosted a high school camping and canoeing experience.

With the hope of meeting a need for leadership-focused environmental youth, we created two, week-long paddle boat trips for high school students. Our goal: to give them a chance to become immersed in the ecology and magic of the Patuxent River. Participants gain strong teamwork skills while spending a week away from home.


Monday icebreakers

Paddling towards independence
As the staff on the trip, we view ourselves as facilitators rather than supervisors, and try to give participants as many peer-to-peer leadership opportunities as possible.

They are challenged daily by paddling with new partners, navigating down river, cooking meals, setting up camp and building fires.

The trip also provides environmental education and critical thinking skills. Throughout the week, teens perform a series of water quality tests to evaluate the health of the Patuxent. They compare results from site to site, form conclusions on the effects of land use and discuss how community actions can have a positive impact on the watershed.

Local leaders, naturalists, archeologists and ecologists educate the group about run-off, nutrient levels and invasive species. They teach teens about their role in the ecosystem and introduce them to a variety of environmental career possibilities.

Tuesday’s paddle

Highlights of the week
Monday consists of introductions and icebreakers. Throughout the day, we challenge the group to think about what makes a good leader. We analyze our personalities and role models before heading out on the water for safety training.

Tuesday begins our overnight camping. We start the day with an 8.5-mile paddle from the riparian forest zone and end in the tidal marsh.

Wednesday brings Patuxent River Park staff who introduce campers to the natural history of the river via pontoon boats, as well as the historic importance of Mount Calvert, which has artifacts from American Indians and the War of 1812. Then it’s off to our next site on Mattoponi Creek, which provides beautiful marsh views of the sunset.

Wednesday’s lesson

Thursday morning starts with a stewardship project: the clipping of invasive Purple Loosestrife flowers. To restore diversity, the plants must be removed or managed by cutting the seed-heads.

After lunch, we journey to our final stop, Nottingham Farm, home of the Patuxent Riverkeeper headquarters, where we learn about.


Accomplished alumni
While some teens come to camp with a strong passion for the environment, others may just be looking for a week of adventure. Either way, by week’s end, everyone has discoveries to share—some may be personal, others scientific or environmental. We are always excited to know that the teens really were listening and are beaming from ear to ear as they recognize the group’s growth.

Thursday’s invasive removal

“We get reacquainted with our habitat,” says Nishant Carr, a camper. “We get to know the environment around us better and see that it needs our attention. We learn first-hand that we need to do more to help protect it and that helps inspire us.”

Our alumni have used their knowledge on water quality to help them gain STEM credits. They have referenced the trip to attain internships. In addition to achieving higher levels of self confidence, they have been inspired to become local scientific volunteers and National Honor Society participants.

Even a teen who has never paddled before can’t beat a week in a tent, listening to frogs and hanging out with newfound friends. Click here to apply for one of next year’s paddles or to watch our video.

Article by Trystan Sill—Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve education specialist.
Appears in Vol. 18, No. 4 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2015.